Athol committee seeks more details on Vacant Storefront Program

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 02-22-2023 4:15 PM

ATHOL — The Downtown Development Committee seemed poised to support participation in the state’s Vacant Storefront Program, but decided at a recent meeting that questions regarding how the program works need to be answered first.

Overseen by the state Office of Business Development (OBD), this program would provide up to $10,000 in refundable state tax credits to businesses that set up shop in empty storefronts located in an area designated by the town as a Vacant Storefront District. Communities already participating in the program include Greenfield, the central Massachusetts cities of Fitchburg, Framingham, Marlborough, Westborough and Worcester, as well as the cities of Gloucester, Lowell and Taunton.

The first step the town would need to take, according to Athol Assistant Town Planner Heidi Murphy, is establishing the district. Reporting on her recent meeting with the OBD, Murphy explained that the district need not consist of contiguous storefronts, but must include parcels that have been vacant for a year or more. Only ground-level vacancies are eligible since the purpose of the program is to encourage foot traffic.

“The second step, which is the step that might be the more challenging, would be identifying a source of matching grant funding,” Murphy told the committee at its meeting on Feb. 21. “You can give out two $10,000 loans, for lack of a better phrase, that are provided by the state. We can only get up to two per year because that’s the only money that they’re giving out, but the town has to match it.”

The town, she explained, cannot use any other state funding to make the match. Neither can it use the North Quabbin Loan Fund, as it benefits nine different communities.

Murphy noted that a Town Meeting in Webster approved creation of a $50,000 economic development fund using revenue generated by two town-owned billboards. Other communities have used Community Development Block Grants or American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Once the district has been delineated and funds have been secured for a town match, the next step is to submit an application for participation in the program.

“We have to have a Board of Selectmen vote supporting the program and then it goes before the EACC (Economic Assistance Coordinating Council),” said Murphy. “Assuming that gets approved, the business owners then apply directly to the state for the match and then someone in the town is designated to administer the program here.

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“It really doesn’t seem like it’s a lot of heavy lifting. I really think the biggest challenge would be coming up with the $20,000 each year for the town’s match. On the flip side, if you have many vacancies and you really want to promote economic development, is $20,000 too much to ask of Town Meeting or one of these other alternative ways to match the grant?”

Asked how the credits work, Murphy said that when businesses file taxes the following year, the $10,000 spent they get back on their taxes. Once businesses are approved for the program, they apply directly to the state for tax credits. These can be used for equipment, facade improvements, building renovations and similar expenses.

The EACC meets quarterly, Murphy explained, noting in a document distributed to the committee that its next meeting is June 16, with municipal applications due by May 18. Athol won’t be able to submit an application for this next round of grants, because the annual Town Meeting doesn’t take place until June, meaning the matching funds can’t approved in time for the May deadline. Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith said an article seeking match funding would likely be ready for the fall Town Meeting, after which the town could submit an application in time for the next quarterly meeting of the EACC.

Since the funding provided to businesses comes in the form of tax credits, Smith and Murphy said they were unsure exactly how the town’s match is used by the state. There was also a question whether the money approved by the town would go into a revolving account or another type.

While response of the committee to the program was generally positive, it was decided that full endorsement would be withheld until those and other questions can be answered.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.

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